Program notes for the TMC’s Sacred Music for a Sacred Space concert on April 12 and Good Friday, April 14, 2017 at St. Paul’s Basilica. Program notes by Rick Phillips.
“Holy Week, culminating in Good Friday, is a time of repose and reflection, regardless of race, creed or religion. It’s a time of peace and tranquility.” So claims TMC Artistic Director Noel Edison. “There’s an internal, emotional change during Holy Week, coming after the long and dark Lenten season. Here in Canada, it is further released by spring being just around the corner!” Noel loves the rich choral repertoire of the entire Easter season, and enjoys combining ancient music with contemporary. “The new has often been influenced by the old,” he says. “It’s like living in a modern house but with wonderful antique furnishings throughout. Both are worthy and both provide the sense of calm and personal reflection I love.”
Tenebrae is an evening service during Holy Week of readings and psalm settings during which candles are extinguished one-by-one, until the final candle, symbolic of the light of Christ, is snuffed out, plunging the church into total darkness. It’s believed that the Miserere mei, Deus by Gregorio Allegri (c.1582–1652) was written in 1638 for Tenebrae in the Sistine Chapel. The chant-like delivery of the Psalm 51 text is contrasted by a vocal quartet, usually situated at a distance, and containing florid music featuring a high, ethereal solo soprano. For over a century, the Vatican, aware it owned an exceptional work, refused to allow any copy to leave the Sistine Chapel, subject to severe punishment. According to legend, the monopoly was only broken when the 14-year-old Mozart heard it there and jotted it down from memory.
Arguably today’s most popular living composer is the Estonian Arvo Pärt (b.1935). The Lorico or The Deer’s Cry is a “breastplate” – an ancient armour of faith that protected the wearer from all forms of evil, attributed to St. Patrick who brought Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century. The Irish rulers opposed Patrick and the legend goes that, knowing he and his monks were about to be ambushed in a forest, began chanting the Lorico. They were magically transformed into a herd of deer, passed without incident and were saved. Arvo Pärt composed The Deer’s Cry in 2007 and it was first heard in Louth, Ireland in 2008.
The Reproaches was composed by English composer John Sanders (1933–2003) in 1993. A series of antiphons and responses intended for Good Friday, the innocence of Christ is contrasted with human guilt and ingratitude. Sander’s approach to The Reproaches maintains the power and intensity of the original ancient plainchant.
Antonio Lotti (1667–1740) hailed from Venice and except for a couple of years in Dresden, spent most of his life working at St. Mark’s Basilica. He composed almost thirty operas and many secular cantatas, but is mostly known today for several settings of the Crucifixus text, taken from the Credo section of the Mass. Why Lotti composed so many settings of the Crucifixus is unknown, but it may have been for insertion into mass settings by other composers.
Throughout history, musicians have set texts to existing instrumental or orchestral works, giving them new life. Excerpts from the Beatitudes set to Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio, and the Agnus Dei set to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings are two examples. Lux Aeterna by Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934) is a choral arrangement of this text from the Requiem Mass set to the popular “Nimrod” variation from his orchestral masterpiece, the Enigma Variations. Arranger John Cameron (b.1944) is best known for his film scores to “A Touch of Class” and “Black Beauty.”
Traditionally sung at evensong, the Nunc Dimittis is the joyful Song of Simeon after he has seen the infant Jesus at temple. Translated from Latin, it means “Now you are dismissed.” The Choir will sing two different settings of the Nunc Dimittis tonight.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) had a passion for the music of previous ages and his appreciation of Bach and Handel is well known. But Mendelssohn also adored the music of earlier composers like Allegri and Lotti, and that influence appears in the clarity and transparency of his music. Although born a Jew, Mendelssohn converted to Protestantism, and enjoyed great popularity in Victorian England. His three Op. 69 choral works, including this Nunc Dimittis, were intended for the Church of England.
Composition runs in the family of the contemporary Polish composer Pawel Lukaszewski (b.1968). Both his late father and younger brother also carved out careers as composers. Lukaszewski has developed his own distinct “anti-modern” style, acknowledging the influence of his earlier compatriot Henryk Górecki, as well as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. Although he has composed concertos, chamber music and film scores, the bulk of Lukaszewski’s output is choral. The Nunc Dimittis was written in 2007 for the English conductor Stephen Layton and the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge.
Sarah Quartel (b.1982) is a Canadian composer, conductor and teacher whose choral music is garnering lots of attention internationally. Influenced by early music, Sanctum is a setting of four movements of the ancient Requiem text, set for women’s voices and inspired by the landscape of the Canadian west coast. Metaphors for healing and sanctuary, each movement depicts an aspect of Vancouver Island – water, mountains, wind and sky. The result is some of Quartel’s most atmospheric and dramatic writing to date. In these TMC concerts, we’ll hear the first and fourth movements – Requiem aeternam and Lux aeterna.
How They so Softly Rest by Toronto composer Healey Willan (1880–1968), to a text by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1870–1882), was composed near the end of World War I. The motet is dedicated to the memory of the choristers of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir who died in the Great War.
An Apostrophe to the Heavenly Hosts is often considered the choral masterpiece by Willan, composed on commission for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in 1921. Scored for eight-part double choir and two small, distant ‘mystic’ choirs, the final section is based on the great hymn tune “Lasst uns Erfreuen.” Apostrophe was performed in November, 1952 at the brand new Royal Festival Hall in London, in the presence of the yet-to-be-crowned Queen Elizabeth II.
Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, teacher, broadcaster and music tour host. You can find out more about him at www.soundadvice1.com